An innovative project aimed at improving mental health through nature has been launched by RSPB Northern Ireland and the South Eastern Health Trust.
The Head to Nature scheme is an eight-week pilot which will see eight service users voluntarily attend RSPB NI's Portmore Lough nature reserve near Aghalee. They will take part in activities like guided walks, wildlife photography, nature surveys and practical conservation work on the reserve.
The group, from Derriaghy Social and Educational Centre, have a range of mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.
The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression-related illness will become the greatest source of ill health by 2020.
However, currently in Northern Ireland there is a lack of research looking at the mental health benefits of exposure to nature.
It's hoped that the Head to Nature project will promote the benefits of a pro-active approach to mental health, using nature as a form of prevention and intervention. This may also provide cost saving benefits to health care providers.
Sean Woods from RSPB NI commented: "The first Head to Nature session went very well and we are excited to see how the project develops over the coming weeks.
"We hope it will have a positive impact on the participants' lives, both during and after the project."
He added: "This project will help promote the importance of nature's effect on health and wellbeing. The results will be evaluated and we hope this will contribute to the evidence base here in Northern Ireland."
Project participant Paulette Mitchell added: "It's inspiring to visit such beautiful surroundings, rejuvenating mind, body and spirit through the various activities available on site and to have the satisfaction of investing in both nature and health and wellbeing in a holistic way."